Gut Check: Do You Need To Be The Smartest Person In The Room?

July 30, 2015 Vince Molinaro
Gut Check: Do You Need To Be The Smartest Person In The Room?There is nothing worse, in my humble opinion, than being in the company of a leader who needs to be the smartest person in the room. It’s something that trips up many new leaders and even established ones.

Behavior like this causes two big problems.

First, even if the leader IS the smartest person in the room, giving off that vibe is a sure way to demoralize and even anger the people they are leading. Leaders that think they are smarter than everyone else tend to talk a lot and listen very little. They have to win every argument, and their ideas are always deemed to be the best. Even worse, these leaders tend to resent those who challenge them.

All that baggage makes these leaders, ultimately, very ineffective.

But there’s a second problem: if recent research is any indication, there is a very good chance these leaders are NOT the smartest person in the room.

A recent study by Timothy Judge, a professor at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, found that leaders do not, on average, have the highest IQs in their organizations.

The study found that leaders tend to score very high in qualities like extraversion and conscientiousness. However, they are not necessarily geniuses, at least not in the conventional, measurable sense.

That may come as a shock both to leaders, many of which assume they are in fact the smartest people in their organizations, and many of the people being led, which often assign super intelligence to the people who lead them.

In its take on the Notre Dame study, Business Insider said: “It may simply be that we perceive leaders as smarter than they really are, simply because we know they’re powerful and assume they must be really intelligent to amass all that power.”

That’s a really excellent point, and one that explains how the mystique that automatically accompanies a leadership position often obscures our ability to objectively assess those leaders for skills and intelligence. In other words, once we see leaders, we begin to assign to them certain qualities that, as the study shows, may or may not exist.

What does this tell us about leadership in general?

First, that there is no advantage for leaders to position themselves as the smartest person in their organizations. Even if it’s true, as noted above, it only pisses people off. And the reality is that it’s likely you’re not the smartest person, anyway.

The research findings should, if we take the time to consider them, liberate a lot of leaders. You’ll learn you probably aren’t the smartest person in the room. Furthermore, you’ll have the comfort of knowing you don’t need to be in order to be an effective leader.

Best of all, if you can get over yourself, there is the very real possibility those leaders are actually surrounded by employees who are smarter, and your job is to truly leverage that collective brain power for organizational success.

Great leaders, in my experience, are ones that focus on the people they lead, not how they are perceived by those people. They are constantly thinking about how to drive performance, not how to earn applause from their employees.

In other words, great leaders – whether they are the smartest person or not – realize that the world is too complex for any one person to have all the answers.

And ironically, leaders that demonstrate humility and focus their attention on making the people around them better are the ones that ultimately are considered the greatest leaders.

This week’s leadership gut check asks: do you need to be the smartest person in the room?

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro

Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.

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